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LETTERS TO THE TIMES

Spoken English Falls Flat

October 18, 2003

I thoroughly enjoyed John McWhorter's "Left Speechless" (Opinion, Oct. 12). I, too, appreciate good and proper use of our beloved English language, oratorically and grammatically. The misuse of correct grammar (or is it pure ignorance?) in today's oral conversations is deplorable. Having minored in English in college, I find it very irritating to hear people say "for John and I," "to Mary and I," etc., as well as the blatant misuse of the pronoun "myself," as in "contact myself." I only do things to or for "myself." Others do things "to me" or "for me." By the way, if one does not know whether to use "I" or "me," try dropping the other person's name and see how "for I" or "to I" sounds. Not all things that appear to sound grammatically correct are, but it works in this case. Good slang is OK, but bad grammar is not.

Bill Buffington

Woodland Hills

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My daughter heard me laughing over the Sunday paper and asked me what was so funny. Instead of telling her, I read her the two passages of the piece that I found humorous. I asked her what she noticed about them. She said that the first one, from John F. Kennedy's 1961 State of the Union address, made her feel independent, as if she could do something, or maybe anything.

About the second one, in which President Bush says, "Let's roll," she asked, "What does that mean?" Though I concede that she probably doesn't understand the nuances of the first quote and her choice of the word "independent" to describe her feeling was somewhat imprecise, I also must remember that the child is 7. It was her grasp of the different styles and, most important, of the difference in meaning, or lack of it, that took my breath away. If only she could vote!

Cathy Scott Skubik

San Pedro

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Re McWhorter's piece on the loss of eloquence, let me see how succinctly I can speak my piece: I was, like, totally into his hypothesis until he suddenly blamed, out of the blue, the '60s counterculture's "do their own thing" ethos for the lack of "carefully constructed rhetoric" in public speaking today. Why pick on the hippies with so many other places to look for a culprit?

What about television commercials and sitcoms and TV and radio newscasters? I doubt if Walt Whitman could land a job writing for them, nor would he want to. In Whitman's pre-telecommunication era, people rarely heard a public speech or saw a musical or theatrical performance. It was a special event for which the presenter prepared and where the audience listened carefully. Today we are inundated with sound bites day and night, and the competition for the lending of our ears has resulted in shorter and shorter units of speech that get right to the point. I, too, bemoan the loss of language, but I question McWhorter's theory.

Lanny Kaufer

Ojai

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Thank you for McWhorter's wonderful essay, which so succinctly and aptly described our currently degraded state of language usage. I absolutely agree that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as the result of my generation's going overboard in the 1960s in terms of challenging authority and generally accepted social mores. Civil discourse is no more.

There was, and is, something to be said for a well-crafted phrase that reflects a well-organized point of view. It's a pity that most people today seem to be cursed with the attention span of a gnat; I suppose that we can thank the drug-crazed parents of today's kids for MTV, VH1 and all the other indicia of a society that collectively suffers from attention deficit disorder.

Stephen P. Watkins

Los Angeles

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Eloquent language is disappearing because it has been devalued at every level of our educational system. This system, so intent on preserving the "self-esteem" of the student, has abrogated its responsibility to instruct through criticism. Errors of language, syntax and rhetoric go uncorrected for fear of infringing upon the speaker's unique "ethno-cultural" and "psychosocial" position. To correct these errors is to denigrate the speaker's "rich linguistic heritage."

In today's world, sloppy grammar, illogical sentence structure and a third-grade-for-life vocabulary are not faults. They are the hallmarks of a unique speaker who must be "nurtured" in a "nonthreatening environment." The result is the linguistic devolution on daily display in our schools and universities, on our televisions and in our newspapers.

Leo Gordon

Los Angeles

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McWhorter's excellent piece on the dearth of oratory omitted one great orator of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His "I have a dream" speech galvanized a nation that had been struggling with civil rights for two centuries and forever changed the face of America. Just imagine what the antiwar movement would have been if it had had a compelling orator at the helm!

Emmanuel Annor

Los Angeles

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